Howard Wershil | 7 JUL 2023
For any composer, regardless of that composer’s style or language, finding an audience for the music is a challenge, often yielding unpredictable results. The audience may be small, consisting of valued colleagues and interested students, or large, consisting of a vast collection of differing individuals internationally.
Finding a context for the music is an almost pointless task unless the music can appeal to an audience connected to an historical or political cause. In the case of composer Laurence Sherr, he has indeed found context and meaning for his music, dedicating it to a cause of vital necessity, that of keeping truth alive in a world where misinformation and historical inaccuracies equate with reality in the hearts and minds of far too many of its citizens.
For all Jews worldwide, having lost family or not, the Holocaust remains a tragic reminder of the capacity of the human species to choose to promote hatred over love, destruction over creation, brutality over humanity, and insanity over reason. For Sherr, whose mother was a holocaust survivor, it has personal significance, leading him to create this album containing music based on the songs and poems of those who existed in unimaginable times.
For this album, Sherr provides exceptionally marvelous program notes about each piece, the context of all the pieces, and his motivation for composing them. From reading them, I gained new and welcome information about the musical and literary activities of poets and musicians active during the Holocaust. The themes of hope, determination, faith, courage, and more all persist throughout the tenor of their creations, and these sentiments indeed carry forward into the treatment given them by the composer of this music.
The lengthiest composition on this album, and its namesake, Fugitive Footsteps, is a setting for baritone and chamber chorus of a poem, “World, do not ask those snatched from death” by Pulitzer Prize-winning Jewish writer and poet Nelly Sachs. According to Sherr, the poem was chosen “because it reflects the experiences of Holocaust survivors like Sachs and my mother, both of whom fled Germany and survived the war as refugees in neutral European countries. Also significant in my choice of the poem is the universality of its meaning and message, both of which address the plights of survivors of all tragedies. My hope is that my setting of Sachs’s words will promote healing, awareness, and understanding.” The poem’s message is communicated in a language filled with sacred beauty and abundant lyricism.
Flame Language, the second-lengthiest composition, is also based on poetry by Nelly Sachs, featuring “The candle that I have lit for you,” the first of ten poems contained in the anthology, Gebete für den toten Bräutigam (“Prayers for a Dead Bridegroom”). It references the use of a Yarzheit candle in Jewish homes to honor the dead but alludes further to powers of a flame beyond its intended purpose. The piece is scored for mezzo-soprano, clarinet, cello, piano, and percussion and alternates between moments of dissonance, lyricism, playfulness, and mystery.
Sonata for Cello and Piano, “Mir zaynen do!” (“We Are Here!”) consists of three movements, containing moments that convey energy, lyricism, drama, and bravado. This piece uses the greatest array of musical examples gleaned from Sherr’s research to realize his vision. Far-more-than-adequate program notes will draw you into the lives and circumstances surrounding the musical and literary protagonists. For me, this piece provided the clearest references to the kind of music of the time certainly familiar to Jewish ears such as my own, and, as such, provides the clearest sense of homage and remembrance to the vitality of lives senselessly damaged or destroyed during their time. Themes in the second movement, in particular, express deep emotional beauty more than capable of touching anyone’s heart.
Khayele’s Waltz appears twice on the album, once in a version for clarinet and cello and again in a version for bassoon and cello. It’s a mostly light-hearted exercise, utilizing a sweet melody composed by a 15-year-old before encountering the sorrow of the times. The contrast between the tone of the music and the history of its composer is beyond profound.
Elegy and Vision proved for me to be the most communicative composition on the album, providing a level of emotional connection and satisfaction greater than those of the other compositions. Perhaps it was the expressive quality of the cello itself; perhaps it was the simplicity of the voice of a solo instrument. Regardless, with each moment of listening, I was drawn closer and closer to the story being told by the universal language.
As a composer and listener, I might have hoped to encounter more innovation and experimentation with the themes presented herein. Yet while the overall language of the music presented here, for the most part, resides vaguely in an arena we might (perhaps inaccurately) call “academic classical contemporary,” I find myself wondering if the familiarity and dramatic power of this arena isn’t precisely what’s necessary to resurrect the turmoil and strife of those encapsulated by unfathomable historical events. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to hear this album and hope to listen one day to the original music from which these contemporary compositions were derived.
Considering my own distinctive personal and eclectic musical tastes, I might find myself only occasionally hearkening back to this album, perhaps when I need contrast to the music I’ve been hearing beforehand or perhaps when I know that the familiarity of the melodies and themes contained therein will graciously comfort me and move me as a Jew of Ashkenazy descent with a fair knowledge of our colorful and peppered history.
But you don’t have to be Jewish to understand the message. Listen to the music. Listen for yourself. Listen… for your soul. ■
- Dr. Laurence Sherr: ksuweb.kennesaw.edu/~lsherr
- Navona 6492: https://www.navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6492/